A Black woman who broke racial barriers at Elon University was honored by the North Carolina-based institution on Thursday. Glenda Phillips Hightower—the first Black student to be accepted into the school—received an honorary doctorate degree, the Times-News reported.
Hightower enrolled 56 years ago during the Jim Crow era. J. Earl Danieley—who served as the university’s president at the time—gave her a full scholarship. Although Hightower was a full-time student she wasn’t allowed to dorm on campus due to her race. While trying to pursue her degree she often faced discrimination from students and faculty. Hightower persevered because she knew that her journey at the school was something bigger than herself and that her presence on campus mattered. She was leading the way for generations of Black students coming behind her and she truly valued education.
During her sophomore year, she had to withdraw from the school due to health-related issues. She ended up relocating to Washington, D.C. and took courses at Howard University, George Washington University and Georgetown. A few years later she moved to Iowa and earned a nursing and general science degree from the University of Iowa in 1974.
Although she didn’t complete her degree at Elon, the school wanted to honor Hightower for her commitment to changing the racial landscape and opening up doors for other Black students. “Throughout her life, Glenda Phillips Hightower has persevered and chosen the path of love and sacrifice over bitterness,” L’Tanya Richmond, who serves as the school’s Director of Minority Affairs, said in a statement. “In the process, she has changed Elon and paved the way for thousands of Black students, faculty and staff to follow in her footsteps.” Hightower was humbled by the honor. ″‘Thank you’ is woefully inadequate to express to you my gratitude, my humility, my honor and my great satisfaction at being included in a celebration of education and grandness. I didn’t recognize it as leadership at the time, but I certainly am glad that it’s interpreted as leadership.”
Universities across the country are honoring former Black graduates who trailblazed paths for students of color. In 2018, Brown University announced that it would rename one of its buildings after the first Black students to graduate from the institution.